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Penn State Football: No Longer a Kid, Hackenberg Has Earned His Pinstripes

by on January 01, 2015 8:30 PM

Penn State center Angelo Marino can’t look at who lines up behind him, but he likes what he sees.

“Having No. 14 back behind us is huge,” Mangiro says. “I may be biased since I’m his center. But that’s a special kid right there.”

Penn State tight end Kyle Carter hasn’t had many looks over his past 16 games.

Carter made only 18 receptions between his game-winning overtime 15-yard TD catch against Illinois on Nov. 2, 2013, and his game-winning overtime 10-yard TD catch against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 27.

But Carter knows if he gets open, No. 14 will get him the ball.

“We all know we have a great quarterback on this team,” said Carter after PSU beat BC, 31-30, in Yankee Stadium. “It’s really just about us getting open and getting separation. He’ll definitely fire it in there when he needs to. He’s a great player. He’s a student of the game. He’s got prototypical size height and weight. He’s a great player who works on his craft and we have to do that too.”

Penn State defensive tackle Anthony Zettel knows a lot about sacking quarterbacks. He’s an All-Big Ten first-teamer who made 17 tackles for a loss in 2014, cranking them out at a rate of one every 2.47 tackles. He’s also tight with No. 14, hanging out with him in the locker room, on the links and as the PSU QB watches Zettel’s occasionally zany off-the-wall pranks.

Zettel likes that when he’s on the sidelines during crunch time of a game he looks out and sees his buddy with the football. No. 14 stands as tall as Zettel, but at 234 is 42 pounds lighter. And even though Zettel outscored him one touchdown to zero in 2014, he has every ounce of respect possible for the sophomore quarterback.

“I have the utmost confidence there is in that kid,” Zettel said after the Pinstripe Bowl. “He works his butt off every day to perform like he does. Words can’t describe how clutch this kid is when he’s out on the field. When he’s in that mode, he makes some throws that no one else can make.”

THAT KID

You know that kid’s name.

And you know his work. In 2013-14, he led Penn State on 11 last-ditch drives that resulted in a victory in regulation; an overtime-sending score; an overtime-extending touchdown or field goal; or a victory in overtime.

He’s started at quarterback in every game of his college career, engineered eight wins of a touchdown or less (out of 14 wins overall) and led his team to three victories in five overtime games – and a successful 37-yard field goal would’ve pushed his OT record to 4-1.

He’s ended each of his first two seasons with resounding performances on big stages. In 2013, on the road in Madison against No. 14 Wisconsin on national TV, he completed 21 of 30 passes for 339 yards with four touchdowns. In the Pinstripe Bowl against Boston College on national TV in one of American sports’ most iconic settings, he completed 34 of 50 passes for 371 yards and four touchdowns.

Do the math: 45 completions, 80 attempts, 710 yards, eight touchdowns. No interceptions. (And a combined running attack of 208 yards.)

That’s not the amazing part. This is: The performances came with almost entirely different supporting casts.

Only three of the other 10 offensive starters in that 2013 game against Wisconsin were on the field for the finish of that 2014 game against Boston College – offensive tackle Donovan Smith, tight end Jesse James and wide receiver Geno Lewis, who was starting only his second game of the 2013 season.

Speaking of Lewis: Against Boston College, he was alternating plays with a pair of (very good) freshmen receivers – redshirt DaeSean Hamilton, playing with a tender hamstring, and Chris Godwin – who were both completing their first season of college football.

Against Boston College, the Penn State head coach was new. The offensive coordinator calling the plays was new. The quarterback coach was new. Most of the guys in the quarterback meeting room were new. Heck, even the equipment manager was new. Running back Akeel Lynch was basically new, since the backfield was devoid of one senior 2,108-yard career rusher, as well as another senior 1,689-yard career rusher.

Still, No. 14 in blue and white made like No. 2 in pinstripes.

NO. 2 AFTER 1,155 GAMES

His 371 passing yards in Yankee Stadium were the most by a Nittany Lion quarterback in 45 bowl games. His 34 pass completions and his 50 pass attempts were each the second-highest such totals in Penn State’s 128-year, 1,155-game history. That’s bowl games and otherwise.

He regressed, all right. From Beaver Stadium to America’s Dairyland to Dublin and, finally, to the Bronx. Along the way there were Michigan and Illinois overtime wins in 2013. The 7-play, 55-yard, 65-second winning drive against Central Florida in Ireland. The 6-play, 80-yard, 110-second winning drive at night at Rutgers. The 19-play, 77-yard, 176-second Whiteout-induced, game-tying scoring drive on national TV that sent CFP-bound Ohio State into overtime.

In the Pinstripe Bowl, after he lost a fumble on Penn State’s first possession of the third quarter, he reverted to form. So much so, that the Nittany Lions scored on four of their remaining five drives to overcome a 21-7 deficit and preserve a winning season. The drives went like this: Lewis, 7-yard touchdown reception (6 plays, 63 yards, 2:04); punt (6-18, 1:43); Hamilton, 16-yard reception touchdown (6-55, 1:44); Sam Ficken, 45-yard field goal (8-49, 1:45); and Carter, 10-yard touchdown reception (6-25, OT).

That was already his 25th start at Penn State, one away from John Shaffer, three from Kerry Collins and eight from Todd Blackledge – three of the best and most successful leaders in PSU history. He’ll be the only one of seven captains of the 2014 Nittany Lions who returns in 2015.

THE KID IS THE CAPTAIN

The Captain is only a sophomore, but after a sometimes-giddy freshman season on and off the field, following this year’s 7-6 up-and-down season, Christian Hackenberg is anything but sophomoric.

“We stuck to our game plan, stuck to our guns,” he said a half-hour after beating BC. “Ultimately, the character of our team and our guys came through.”

That was the tree. Here is Hackenberg’s take on the forest that was 2014:

“What did I learn? Just being able to deal with a bunch of adversity, being able to come back and focus on the things you can control. And to make sure you can also be a great teammate, a guy who can push everyone else, who can teach the younger guys how to prepare, to teach the younger guys what it takes to play and win at this level.”

The Pride of the Lions.

“That kid," said Zettel, sitting in a folding chair, deep inside Yankee Stadium after that game. "The pride that kid has in the school and his teammates is just unbelievable.”

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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